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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Staking out the Forest Conference

Air Date: Week of

On April 2, President Clinton, Vice-President Gore and four Cabinet Secretaries will convene the Northwest Forest Conference in Portland, Oregon. The event is billed as a forum that will bring together all sides on the logging/spotted owl debate. Gordon Black reports from Seattle on the positions being staked out by environmentalists and loggers, and he's finding compromise may not be easy.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Sound of tree falling, chainsaws)

CURWOOD: Until a Federal judge suspended virtually all logging of old-growth trees in Federal lands in the Pacific Northwest, that was the sound of financial music for loggers and the crash of irreversible ecosystem destruction for conservationists. Today the Federal forests are quiet, because the courts have yet to be satisfied that further cuts won't result in the extinction of the spotted owl. But beyond the narrow court cases, there are greater environmental concerns for America's last major stand of virgin and old-growth forest in the lower 48 states. These concerns range across the entire ecosystem -- from other bird species to the sustainability of salmon runs. On April 2nd, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are scheduled to go to Portland, Oregon and lead a one-day conference on the dilemma faced by the timber industry and the environment in the Pacific Northwest. The President says he plans to . . .

CLINTON: Listen, hammer out the alternatives, and then take a position that I think will break the logjam -- the position that may be like my economic program, it'll probably make everybody mad, but I will try to be fair to the people whose livelihoods depend on this, and fair to the environment that we are all obligated to maintain.

CURWOOD: Later in this program, we'll hear from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt on how the Administration views the problems, and some possible solutions. But first, we turn to Gordon Black in Seattle, who has this report on what logging companies, laborers and conservationists plan to say to the President.

BLACK: The President's Portland conference team faces a barrage of facts and numbers about Northwest forests. Both main sides are coming to the conference armed with revealing figures to bank their positions. Environmentalists quote the stark statistic about how much ancient forest is left -- just 15%, they say. And the timber industry points out that sales in the national forests have fallen 80% in the past two years. As the industry approaches the conference, it's dealing with a drop in supply and the new political mood at the White House. This has led to a softening of its position on the Federal forests. Gus Kinney is executive director of Northwest Independent Forest Manufacturers, which represents small mills.

KINNEY: We're willing to in essence say that we'll virtually give up clear-cutting, which is by far the most economic and it's environmentally sound -- it doesn't look good, people don't like it, but we're willing to give up that to respond to the concerns that the public has with that practice, and to do types of logging that are much more expensive.

BLACK: Although willing to adapt, the industry is not about to give up its access to remaining old-growth. But environmentalists say that's what the industry has to do.

WHITNEY: Unfortunately, the opportunity for compromise is somewhat limited. We have cut ourselves into a corner in the Pacific Northwest. There is very little forest left.

BLACK: Steve Whitney directs the Washington state office of the Wilderness Society.

WHITNEY: To get out of that corner, it's going to be abrupt, and it's going to be disruptive, and it's going to be difficult for some rural towns, and mills, and mill workers. The best thing that we can do to ensure a reliable flow of timber to mills in the Pacific Northwest is to put in place a package of protections for the ancient forests and all of the critters that depend on them, that meets the test of law so we can get out of court, and once the reserves established we can talk about what sort of harvest makes sense on the lands outside the reserves.

BLACK: Whitney and other environmentalists contend that preserving old-growth forests will help create a stable supply of logs for the timber industry from second- and third-growth forests. Environmentalists will have allies at the conference who support this position. Over the years, logging has degraded the region's waterways. The Pacific Rivers Council, a coalition of commercial and recreational fishers, also favors protection of remaining old-growth forests. Bob Dappelt is executive director.

DAPPELT: The older, mature vegetation that exists within the forest watersheds of this region really are the existing anchors to the health of the fisheries and to the health of the river systems.

BLACK: The timber industry's Gus Kinney worries that these kinds of arguments will carry weight with the Clinton team at the conference.

KINNEY: I gotta say that I'm also a little discouraged by the fact that some in the Clinton Administration don't seem to understand the problem out here. They seem to think that the solution is in fact more withdrawals from any kind of management and establishing more reserves.

BLACK: Despite the gap between what environmentalists and the timber industry want out of the conference, both now talk of an ecosystem approach to forest management. This method of recognizing all elements within the forest as integral to its health is also on the mind of President Clinton. That's according to Representative Jolene Unsoeld, a Washington State Democrat active in forestry issues.

UNSOELD: He understands that part of the way you take an ecosystem approach is that you also bring your agencies that each have a little piece of the action and bring them together. He's going to have four Cabinet-level, either secretaries or directors participating in this conference, plus himself and the Vice President. You couldn't give it much greater high-level priority, it seems to me.

BLACK: Presidential priority notwithstanding, Clinton has said no policy decisions will be made at the one-day conference. But Congresswoman Unsoeld expects that following the conference, the Administration will present to the Congress aimed at resolving the Northwest forestry issue this fall. For Living on Earth, I'm Gordon Black in Seattle.



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